By Sherri Romig CPDT-KA

Why Should I use the Clicker to Train my Dog?

Using the clicker when training your dog can greatly speed up your results. The clicker acts a bridge that increases communication between you and your dog and makes the training process easier and more enjoyable for both of you. It also allows you to train your dog by quickly teaching what behavior IS acceptable, rather than constantly scolding for behaviors that are not acceptable.

Why Does the Clicker Work?

The clicker is what is known as a “reward marker”. This means that the dog learns that every time he hears the click, he has earned a reward for whatever behavior he was performing at that exact moment. The sound of the click “marks” a precise behavior and because the dog knows that click = treat, he is more likely to offer that particular behavior again. For example, if you click and treat every time your dog comes up to you and sits, watch how often his butt starts hitting that floor.

Because the clicker can mark such a precise moment or behavior, it can also be used to train very specific things. For example, if you want the dog to sit only on your left side, click and treat only when he sits on your left. You will be amazed at how quickly he figures out what actions make clicks happen, and before long he will be sitting at your left side every time. Some cues that may be difficult to teach with more traditional methods are fast and easy using the clicker.

Clicker Rules

1. One Click = One Treat. Every time. This rule is important to maintain the integrity of the clicker. If your dog keeps getting clicks that are not followed by rewards, the association will weaken and the clicker will begin to lose its power.

2. Your clicking must be precise. If you click at the wrong moment: at best, you will end up with a very confused dog; at worst, you will be reinforcing a behavior you definitely do not want. Practice your clicker timing by watching a tennis match on tv and clicking every time the racket hits the ball. (Be sure to do this while your dog is out of earshot!)

3. The clicker is used mainly to train new behaviors. Once your dog knows a cue, he will not have to receive a click for that anymore. You can phase out the clicker for that behavior and reward with praise and life rewards (like toys, playtime, access to resource, etc.) In fact, rewarding known behaviors randomly results in stronger performance than a reward every time.

Charging the Clicker

Begin by gathering together your clicker, your hungry dog, and a large bag of yummy treats. Get the dog in front of you and begin clicking and treating in fairly rapid succession. Make sure that the click is always just before the treat. The dog doesn’t have to be doing anything special for this, as long as he is not doing anything undesirable.

After a minute or two of this the dog should start to make the association between hearing the click and getting the treat. Wait for the dog to look away and then click. If his head whips toward you with a “where’s my treat?” look, your clicker is charged and you can begin to move on to exercises requiring the dog to practice simple behaviors to earn clicks.

If the dog doesn’t whip around with a “where’s my treat?” look when you click, the association has not yet been made. Go back to click-treating in rapid succession and then try again. Be sure that your clicks are always delivered before the treat.

Once the association has been made (the dog looks for his treat whenever he hears the click), we want him to learn that he has the power to make clicks happen.

Start with clicker and treats in hand and just stand and wait. Do not ask the dog to do anything*. As soon as he performs a basic behavior on his own (sitting or eye-contact are both great for this exercise), click and treat. Then stand and wait again. After a few minutes or so, he will most likely do it again. Click and treat. As this goes on, the dog will begin to realize that he is making the click happen by sitting (or whatever it is you were clicking for.) He thinks he has his very own treat machine! At this point, he will begin offering this behavior like crazy. Congratulations! You have a fully charged clicker and a dog who is willing to do whatever he can to make those clicks happen. You are well on your way to a wonderfully behaved companion!

* The reason we do not cue the dog is that we want him to choose to offer the behavior on his own. This helps us produce dogs who are thinking and creative, rather than robots who wait to be told what to do. If you teach your dog to offer different behaviors until he finds the one you are looking for, training will be much easier and more fun for both of you.